I’ve been thinking about waves lately. Waves as a concept, waves as a constant, waves as the continuity that ties so many things that don’t seem related together. This is one of those columns that might not make a lot of sense, but I hope you can bear with me. It’s a dark fall day outside, deep under the clouds that sprinkle a little bit of rain down on us. Our hemisphere is tilting away from the sun and we all know from experience what’s coming. It’s one of those daze.
History does seem to come at us in waves, the length of which are just long enough for us to forget lessons that are a bit too tiresome and distant to absorb beyond one lifetime. I realized this today when Treasury Secretary Geitner testified before the House Banking Committee in a very frank exchange on regulation and policy needed to prevent the kind of disaster we’re still in the middle of. The whole conversation revolved around the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which is when insured banks were allowed to take part in complicated market-based hedge operations and investment schemes. This is, apparently, now roundly regarded as a Bad Idea™. We learned that particular lesson of the last Depression the hard way, again, because we didn’t learn it adequately before.
I spent some time this week talking with a few business people along the Central Corridor asking how I could help them stop the proposed rail line, ideally replacing it with a system that is appropriate for the location. The central thrust of my argument is that we should have learned what a terrible idea Urban Removal was in the 1960s, but we’re attempting to do it once again to the people along University Avenue. It struck me how the lessons of the other big waste of the same time, the Vietnam War, fell so harshly on the people I was talking with – it’s what brought them to University Avenue in the first place. The great circle of life somehow closed on their lives from the time they were young soldiers through their refugee years to the point where they built up something that they very much do not want to lose. The USofA, as a nation, was able to ignore the lessons of their struggle on its way to Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is a theory that is gaining some ground about the most basic of all waves around us, those of light and other electromagnetic radiation. If you think about it, the idea that things go up and down in a perfect sine wave is rather strange in and of itself, since the momentum at the extremes is very different than when they pass through the center. It all makes more sense to view them as helical, great spirals that revolve around a center point, never changing their angular momentum as they move forward in a different dimension that we can see and measure. The problem comes when you try to get your head around the dimension that they are revolving around, a dimension we may not be able to sense. When you apply this to the Niels Bohr theory of the atom, where electrons spin in something like a helix around a nucleus in a way that has angular momentum in several dimensions at once, it starts to get mind-blowing.
That’s the problem with the great waves of everything that roll through our lives – some of the dimensions don’t seem to be a part of our ordinary life. We can describe history as a wheel that never seems to return to the same place. Time takes it somewhere slightly different, a helix that never quite closes back on itself. We might realize that the Glass-Steagall Act was a good thing, but what replaces it won’t be exactly the same. The antidote to Urban Removal isn’t going to be the resigned sense of failure of the 1980s, but something a little more active and decent. There is a sense of progress that runs perpendicular to the Great Wheel, after all.
I don’t know if this kind of thinking makes me an optimist or a pessimist, a conservative or a progressive. What I can tell you is that our lives move in waves, long waves that allow us to forget the bad stuff and move ahead blithely pretending we’re all smart for reinventing the wheel each generation. What does that mean for the future? Not a lot, really. History will, apparently, do its own thang no matter what our opinions are of it. I’ve chosen to find that as refreshing as a Fall day that might otherwise look terribly gloomy. It’s not like we didn’t know it was coming, is it?